Politics & Policy

Does Sleaze Become Us?

When on Paris…

Do you know what hell is? It is sitting in Reagan National Airport, waiting, waiting, and waiting for the eight o’clock shuttle to take off, while up on the overhead screen, Larry King throws softball questions at Paris Hilton, who is thinking real hard to try to come up with a reply. Paris, a pretty enough girl who dropped out of high school, and whose only talents should have remained private, remains our front-page news day after day. What is wrong with our media? What is wrong with us? That late-at-night thought made me even more sulky than the fact the shuttle didn’t take off till after 1 A.M.

And how about manic-depressive Rosie and her latest controversy? Yes, Ro, you either have to be kind of nuts or still so desperately in need of media attention, or both, to dress your little daughter up like a suicide bomber and post her picture on your website. Rosie’s explanation is the kids were just playing soldiers! But most parents, even if their kids want to play soldier — and there’s nothing wrong with that — do not dress them up like mini-terrorists.

I can’t believe it was little Vivi’s idea to put on the bandolier and the headscarf unless she’s been watching al Qaeda videos instead of Beauty and the Beast. And, frankly, that poor, sweet-faced kid appears so forlorn and has such dark circles under her eyes that she looks like she needs an ice cream cone followed by a long nap, rather than pretending to stage a surprise attack on Elizabeth Hasselbeck.

Final gossip story of the day, and just as distasteful as the above: The recent mud-wrestling between Ann Coulter and Elizabeth Edwards, aided and abetted by Chris Matthews. Of course, this is not a political story but a typical celebrity feud, with escalating TV appearances by the parties involved. Everyone knows that Ann is a media-attention-seeking missile, but one would think that Mrs. Edwards would have more dignity than to use exactly the same tactics to promote her husband and to raise cash.

In truth, all three stories are really about nothing except the current, highly combustible mix of the famous and faux-controversy — that type of controversy that the celebs fan themselves, or encourage the media to fan for them. And the media is happy to do the heavy fanning, because that makes them part of the story. NBC vs. ABC over Paris! Rosie, on or off The View! What bliss! The media likes nothing better than reporting about themselves.

Paris, in jail or out of jail; Paris, getting paid a million dollars for an interview or giving it away for free. She herself is a blank piece of paper with hair extensions and lots of available video. But the far-from-significant controversy that can be built around her, fanned incessantly and played out for days and days, can seamlessly become the basis for massive coverage, with all the talking heads pontificating.

Rosie O’Donnell, as columnist Linda Stasi in the New York Post points out, “like Coulter has become addicted to making headlines — no matter how despicably she must behave to get them.” And Elizabeth Edwards, whose husband has little chance of becoming the Democratic presidential nominee, must have decided, with the assistance of Chris Matthews, that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. A cat fight with Coulter is a way to prop up a ho-hum campaign and spike ratings and web hits for the grateful Mathews and MSNBC. At least for a couple of days.

But does sleaze become us? Is the media giving us what we want or what they want? Or have we all become so bored or so cynical that we no longer really care. Maybe we should take it all with a sense of humor and treat it as the modern-day neighborhood gossip, just something to giggle about so we don’t really have to think about the hard stuff. Certainly Rupert Murdoch, as he moves closer and closer to the Wall Street Journal, the prize he has always wanted, seems to take it all in stride. He just told Time, “When the Journal gets its Page 3 girls, we’ll make sure they have their MBAs.” Well, at least that’s one place we won’t be seeing Paris Hilton.

Myrna BlythMyrna Blyth is senior vice president and editorial director of AARP Media. She is the former editor-in-chief and publishing director of Ladies’ Home Journal. She was the founding editor and ...


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